The latest halt to proceedings in the football calendar perhaps gives us time to reflect on our counties three top sides performances this season.
Starting with the Red half of the city… Cries of ‘here we go again’ echoed across the county back in June & July as Nottingham Forest rid their “dated & pre-historic” formerly loved but not so much liked anymore, Manager Martin O’Neill and gave us a new foreign name to learn in the form of Sabri Lamouchi.
Many football fans had not even heard of the former Monaco and Inter Milan midfielder.. “The next Phillipe Montanier” perhaps? I like many gave him six months before the Christmas curse and ‘we go again’ with a more Championship suited name like ‘Dougie Freedman’ after an interim from Gary Brazil of course.
But despite our reluctance to be excited, something happened in the early part of the season that gave Reds fans a little more optimism than usual… The transfers at first were underwhelming with O’Neill’s parting gift Sammy Ameobi, a freebie from relegated Bolton not exactly having fans jumping in delight.. How opinions can eventually change eh?
Lamouchi fared slightly better with status signings.. Intriguing captures included yet more Benfica castaways, Albert Adomah moving from Villa seemed shrewd, as did Samba Sow a 29 year old Mali International with Russian Premier League, Turkish Super League and French Ligue 1 experience.
The first game against West Bromwich Albion, relegated from the Premier League and tipped to go straight back up might have ended in defeat.. Had it not been for on loan goalkeeper Arijanet Muric to throw one in the net it might have been better… Forest played well in a game they perhaps should have won, Matty Cash producing an eye opening display at right back where he scored a goal. People went home happy with the performance despite the defeat… A first for Forest fans surely?
A hard earned point at another of the title favourites Leeds gave even more optimism before a comprehensive beating of Birmingham suggested we might be on to something here? A new likeable goalkeeper with the confidence of Michele Hefele and the agility of Peter Grummitt joined in Brice Samba… The side were gelling well and wins at Fulham & Swansea would further excite the usually pessimistic fans who in numbers travel the length and breadth of the country often seeing uninspired performances away from home.
Forest went to Stoke on a grey and miserable Friday night knowing a win would take them top of the table for a night at least… And ‘oh what a night’ it was.
I remember the car journey on the way back from that game and suggesting ‘I can’t see us losing’ with the fixtures Forest had until Christmas. ‘If we can get past Blackburn without defeat we’ll be twenty games unbeaten’ boastfully forgetting how tough the Championship actually is.
Forest drew at Blackburn then beat Brentford and went to struggling Wigan Athletic knowing a three goal win would take Sabri and co back to the top… But then the Manager tinkered…
Four changes including top goalscorer Lewis Grabban on the bench… The gaffer had made his first mistake as the Reds were punished live on Sky.
A 1-0 loss at the DW Stadium was followed by a 1-2 defeat at home to Hull and suddenly Forest had to come through a test of character for the first time in the season.
After a match called off at home against Reading that test was at Luton Town and on that day Sabri again got back to basics in getting his tactics 100% right.
A win over the biggest of rivals Derby County followed in a match that in truth had little drama (other than the stunning display provided by Forza Garibaldi in remembrance to our soldiers).. Sitting in the Brian Clough Stand I couldn’t help feeling the way Forest play they are perhaps better suited away from home… Would this be the sides achilles heal as they look towards promotion?
Just the thought of promotion however in the middle of November, considering what had gone off in previous seasons was something we could all clutch onto. Forest were going strong and a solid 0-0 draw with ten men at Bristol City was followed up by a walloping for QPR at Loftus Road and as Cardiff came to town without an away win all season we all expected much of the same as Forest take apart their opponents…
That however was not the case, this remember is the Championship.
A 0-1 home defeat left everyone a little deflated and that filtered further when a late Lewis Grabban goal at Millwall six days later was cancelled out with an even later reply with Brice Samba making his first mistake in Forest colours.
Forest again succumbed to a late leveller this time verses Middlesbrough who weren’t exactly going great guns before Sheffield Wednesday came to town and thumped Forest in what was a match very much to forget.
Four first half goals lead to masses of fans exiting at the interval – Are Forest crumbling? Is the December curse happening again? Sabri Out? Where is it all going wrong?
It seemed the Reds had no answers…
A week later it was Huddersfield’s turn to beat the Reds and suddenly the club were five without a win going into Christmas.. Little gave us hope at Hull on Boxing Day… But remember… This is the Championship after all.
Forest did what Sabri’s Forest do well in that game at the KCOM Stadium. Defended in numbers and broke with lethality. Back to basics with a 2-0 away win and suddenly things Trentside looked bright again.
Christmas and New Year was perfect. A win over Wigan, scrappy and undeserved but who cares before beating Blackburn at home with Forest now in fourth… The Reds went to Reading full of confidence and they should have had it won. A last minute goal by Ben Watson who’s been magnificent all season should have been enough to take all three points back to Nottingham, enter Toby and his outstreched boot with the final play of the game.
A 1-1 draw wasn’t the end of the world as Forest beat bottom of the table Luton for a routine three points a week later before Reading were back…. The re-arranged match that was originally postponed in November replayed in what seemed to be a carbon copy of the previous affair in Berkshire. Forest took a late lead through the ever-reliable Lewis Grabban before Reading equalised even later. Not as late as what went off at the Majewski but late still… Oh how those four points dropped against the Royals might cost us come May?
In the Championship bouncebackability is key and Forest went to free-scoring Brentford happily titled ‘underdogs’… In a funny way ‘we’ as fans probably all fancied Sabri to do a job, after all the Reds record away from home this season have been impeccable, perfectly seeing off teams on the break this match suited Forest tactically and a horribly deflected shot by Joe Lolley was enough for the Reds to cling onto defending a one goal lead and ensuring they gave nothing away at Griffin Park.
Plan A of Sabri’s tactical approach very much completed and signed off with yet another win on the road… J’adore.
Typically, like Forest do, a trip to Birmingham next up proved too tough to repeat fortunes as the usually dependable Reds striker Lewis Grabban had a penalty saved whilst when already 1-0 up by former Forest Goalkeeper Lee Camp before Brum went up the other end and levelled proceedings.
The Blues on the day were destined to win, you cannot do anything about days like that at the office.. You have to take them on the chin, pick yourself up and see what tomorrow will bring.
And boy was tomorrow a better day?
A week later Forest faced Leeds United at the City Ground with the top two (Leeds & leaders West Brom) in recent weeks falling apart. A win for Forest would take them to within a point of the automatic promotion places… And the performance of the season ensured they did just that.
From Mull of Kintyre to Tyler Walker’s injury time game clincher, man for man, woman and child, paramedic to steward and burger flipper to pint puller everyone contributed that day to a special moment that will live in the hearts of Forest fans forever. Not just the performance, the persona, the personnel, the passion of the whole gridlocked city wearing Red… It felt like Forest had done it… Back to the top… The days of celebration in the old Market Square again just around the corner… Next up Charlton at home on a Tuesday night… Let’s do this…
Then Sabri did us again….
An hour before kick off news broke out that Forest were resting key players ahead of the match against relegation fodder… Us fans knew this was not right.. Every game in the Championship is equally as hard. Why are we resting players when a win will take us to the cusp of promotion?
The game in effect was lost before it had even started… Deflated crowd, passionless and morbid, expecting it all to go wrong. In fairness Charlton were brilliant. They scored a brilliant goal and were worthy winners… But had Sabri picked his best team would they have had such a good chance to take all three points?
Lamouchi rested players ‘understandably’ thinking that Charlton were easier than West Bromwich Albion who Forest had to face just four days later… I get it, we all get it, but we know how these things usually pan out when that kind of decision is made… We know better than anyone… The Championship has after all been our hunting ground for the last eleven years.
Sabri is learning however… He’s new to English football and took full blame just as we forgave him for doing so… Forest went to West Brom and restored our faith, plucky and spirited and but for a Referee performance that will be remembered as one of the worst witnessed we might have snatched a win, but in the end we were delighted with a draw.
A week later against QPR things again fell flat following a Refereeing decision that failed to give Forest a goal. The windiest day of the year leading to a moving ball just as Tiago Silva swept in his corner. Joe Worrall rose highest and headed home without a challenge near him.. Only for it to be pulled for something which can only be down to the luck of the gods. The game eventually ending 0-0.
Forest did of course bounce back in true fashion and as usual it was away from home when after years of failure in the Welsh capital they did what Sabri’s Forest do so well yet again.
Plan A very much working to perfection on a night where Forest broke a ten year hoodoo… A 0-1 victory that had us all believing again.
Forest followed that up with a 2-2 draw at Middlesbrough with Joe Worrall coming out after the match stating “We weren’t good enough”… Four days later that was echoed by over 25,000 Reds fans who watched a display that was arguably the worst of the season. By now the clubs chances of automatic promotion may have slipped away. Leeds bounced back from defeat at Forest to record five straight victories in now leading the division. West Brom in second are now ten points clear of Sabri’s men. The Reds currently fifth, content with playoff positioning but annoyed perhaps on occasions knowing that they could be so much closer but for one or two mishaps.
A year ago however, we would have very much taken your arm off at the club to be kicking in and around the playoffs and when considering yet another Manager has come, gone and been replaced within the last twelve months, this current crop has to be seen as exceeding expectation.
Sabri has made mistakes but watching the great Brian Clough’s Leeds United get trounced at Stoke City on BT Sports ‘The Big Match Revisited’ yesterday (due to not having any other football post 1974 to choose from on TV) it turns out that even the greatest can get it wrong sometimes.
The Frenchman may sometimes lack fluidity in his teams approach (especially when at home) but when his Plan A does work it proves there’s no better Coach in the Division to implement it.
The players originally signed in the summer have been fantastic, those signed in desperation (due to managing the finances through budget perhaps) in January not so… But we need to mention the boys on the pitch that have done so well.
From the goalkeeper, a revelation, a talent, a lovable rogue to the growing improvement of our back four. The defensive partnership of Toby & Joe, the right back resurgence of Matty Cash and the consistency and calmness of Bruno Ribeiro.
In midfield Ben Watson has gone from ‘past it’ to ‘passed it 30 yards’ as he dictates play, picks up the pieces and works and battles like a ginger John McGovern… Samba Sow all be it too frustratingly often injured compliments Watson in the middle of the park and is a player that gels the team from a structural position that makes the Reds hard to beat. Lolley as always is a threat with genuine quality, Ameobi a delight at times, frustrating at others but we wouldn’t have him any other way… The two Portuguese stars (Tiago Silva & Joao Carvalho) blow hot and cold but even when lukewarm they are up there with the best playmakers in the division.
Lastly we have Lewis Grabban… A man who frustrated fans a year ago because he never strode outside the lines he stood between. One that didn’t work hard enough for some… But one that has proved his worth as one of the best, most clinical goalscorers in the Championship (even if his penalties aren’t always great). A player that now works tirelessly for the team and one that deserves more credit for what he does. Our best since Hooijdonk? A big call but worthy of naming him with the likes of Earnshaw & Johnson who have done so well before him.
Whether or not Forest (and football) will get to finish the 2019/20 season off amidst the Coronavirus breakout is another question for another day, but today on reflection of what has gone before us over the last 8 or 9 months Trentside… We can only be proud of our Manager, our Players and our Club for the way they have given us as fans real genuine hope and belief once again as we look towards getting back to where we feel we belong.
Season so far 8 out of 10… Whilst not perfect we still have a chance.
*Article provided by Daniel Peacock (Editor).
*Main image @NottmForestNews the Reds celebrating another goal by Lewis Grabban who has 17 in the league this season.